By Clark Fair
When Victor Frolich announced in the spring of 1962 that he was having a contest to rename his recently purchased Soldotna motel, he was doing more than merely stamping his own identity on the place. He was masking a stain from its past.
On Dec. 18, 1961, Arthur Vernon Watson had shot and killed Marion T. Grissom, a former employee who had been assisting in the construction of the Watson Motel.
Watson, 53, never denied shooting Grissom. In fact, he was the one who had called the authorities after Grissom dropped dead on Watson’s kitchen floor. But Watson claimed that he had pulled the trigger in self-defense, and the facts of the case were muddled enough to generate doubt.
One problem was a lack of witnesses. Grissom, after all, was dead. Watson’s 65-year-old wife, Elizabeth, had been on the premises when the killing occurred, but she claimed to remember nothing. Watson himself provided the only firsthand testimony.
For members of the public — and for attorneys at the 1962 trial — the decision concerning whom and what to believe seemed to boil down to a matter of character.
Marion Grissom, by all accounts, was a poorly educated, hard-working man who liked to drink. The accounts were more mixed when it came to his behavior while intoxicated. Defense attorney Peter B. Walton described an intoxicated Grissom as a “savage beast,” and said that Watson’s fear of this beast played a part in the shooting.
On the other hand, Warren Wright, a former employee at Watson’s motel, testified that Grissom was “playful” when drinking, and his depiction was echoed by Frank Mullen, owner of a local laundromat, who added that Grissom was “boisterous” when intoxicated. Bar owner Maxine Bear testified that Grissom was “a working man … a happy-go-lucky type of guy … very friendly.” Bear said that she’d never seen Grissom display his anger when intoxicated.
But Elizabeth Watson, who was originally from San Francisco and had married Watson in Las Vegas in 1959, offered a contrary and more damning view. She testified that Grissom was a strong man who, “Couldn’t think for himself,” and, “Always had a bottle hid around on the job.” She also recalled an incident from the previous October during which Grissom had brutally mistreated the Watson family dog. Another time, she said, Grissom, “Started grabbing me and pushing me around.”
She told the court that at the Watson residence she had once witnessed her husband and Grissom fighting for possession of a rifle that Watson had taken up in order to force Grissom from the house. She said that the two men had fought to an impasse that time, and Grissom had left.
Meanwhile, the character of Arthur Vernon Watson proved at first more difficult to pin down, partly because of something else his wife said.
According to Watson, he was protecting his wife and himself on the night of the killing. Watson testified — and evidence at the scene indicated — that Grissom and the Watsons were drinking alcohol together on the night of the shooting. Watson said that at about 6 p.m. he left his wife and Grissom at his home while he went to have his truck fixed. When he returned at 8 p.m. he discovered his wife lying on the floor with her face bloody, and as he leaned down to pick her up, Grissom assaulted him.
Watson claimed that he and Grissom struggled until he grabbed a knife from the kitchen drainboard and used it to force Grissom to leave the house. When Grissom started to walk away, Watson said, he set the knife down to tend to his wife. Then he heard a noise and spun to see Grissom coming at him again. He picked up a nearby rifle, levered a cartridge into the chamber, pointed the weapon at Grissom, and told him to get out. But Grissom kept advancing, Watson testified, so he shot and killed him.
According to court documents, a state police officer named Morgan testified that Elizabeth Watson was in bed when he arrived at the scene of the crime. Officer Morgan said that he and another officer interrogated Watson for approximately two hours before Elizabeth Watson emerged from the bedroom. The officers noted that she had “suffered contusions of the neck, facial cuts, and a blow on the head which caused swelling,” according to an Anchorage Daily Times story from March 9, 1962.
Officer Morgan testified that when Elizabeth Watson saw blood on the floor, she asked what it was. When she was told it was blood, she asked, “From what?” When she was informed that Watson had shot Grissom, she exclaimed, “Oh, no!” and then turned to her husband and said, “It’s your temper! Your temper has done it again!”
At trial, the defense attorney argued against the admission of this testimony as evidence, calling it hearsay, but the judge allowed it. During Watson’s later appeal of his conviction for second-degree murder, the Alaska Supreme Court sided with Watson and ordered a retrial. According to the written court decision, Elizabeth Watson had claimed to have no recollection of the shooting incident, so her uninformed reaction to news of the incident was prejudicial, especially since District Attorney James Merbs had failed to elicit from either officer any testimony concerning whether Watson had reacted to his wife’s supposition.
But Watson had other problems during that first trial. Since he and his attorney were attempting to establish that Watson was afraid of Grissom, Elizabeth Watson’s testimony concerning their earlier battle over a rifle turned out to contradict that premise.
Watson’s attorney said that, six months before the shooting, Watson had reported to Officer Morgan the incident with the rifle in order to urge Morgan to tell Grissom to stay away from him, especially when Grissom was drinking. During redirect testimony, however, Officer Morgan testified that Watson never came to him with this request. Instead, he said, he had gone to Watson after Watson’s former employee, Wright, had complained to the police that Watson had taken a shot at him.
Besides, if Watson was afraid of an intoxicated Grissom, it seemed odd that on the night of Dec. 18, 1961, he had invited Grissom in to drink with him and his wife.
In the end, the jury found Watson guilty, and during the 1964 second trial the verdict once again was guilty of murder in the second degree. However, even that was not the end of the case.
Watson and his attorney appealed again — and for good reason.
On Friday, Nov. 6, 1964 — the last day of the trial before the jury was to begin deliberation — several jurors read a newspaper article that described Elizabeth Watson’s disallowed hearsay testimony from the first trial. In a written affidavit, juror Gene R. Jones admitted to seeing the story: “On the afternoon of Nov. 6, 1964, I remember going downstairs in the State Court Building and buying an Anchorage Daily Times from the blind fellow who has the concession stand. I took this newspaper back to the jury assembly room as the jury was out of the courtroom on that date from 2 p.m. to approximately 4 p.m. In this newspaper, I remember reading an item pertaining to the State of Alaska vs. Arthur V. Watson case.”
Because of the jurors’ actions, the Alaska State Supreme Court in April 1966 once again sided with Watson and demanded another new trial.
Meanwhile, Watson was making life tougher on himself. Pending the Supreme Court decision on his appeal from the 1964 retrial, Watson had been released on bail. At some point in early 1965, he slipped out of the state and wound up back in San Francisco. This generated a manhunt.
In February 1965, The Associated Press produced a story about the arrest of Arthur Vernon Watson, calling him a “San Francisco ex-convict.” Watson had been about to board an express bus for Southern California when he was nabbed by FBI agents in a crowded Greyhound terminal. Highlights in the brief story included Watson’s murder conviction in Alaska, the fact that Watson “had spent a third of his life thus far in prisons throughout the United States,” and his recent firearm-possession arrest in Anchorage.
Although the facts are somewhat unclear beyond his arrest in San Francisco and the Supreme Court verdict the following spring, Watson somehow was a free man again in 1976. He was 68 years old and living in Portland, Ore., when the car in which he was riding struck a parked truck on Interstate 80N just west of The Dalles. The impact killed Watson.
Back in Soldotna, there was also no longer a Watson Motel. Victor Frolich had made sure of that.
In the spring of 1962, after paying $10 to the winner of his name-my-motel contest, Frolich changed his new establishment to the Wye Motel, largely because of its proximity to the “Y”-shaped Sterling-Kenai Spur Highway junction.
Many years later, the motel was sold again, and today — with the criminal connections to Arthur Vernon Watson a half-century in the past — it has been expanded and remodeled and is known as the Soldotna Inn, the companion to Mykel’s Restaurant.